my family, my ashram

An author & yogi opens his house to show how spiritual life can begin at home

silkscreen by todd stewart,

excerpted from the print magazine…

Oct. 2
It is my birthday. I awake, and smell an unusual food in the house. My wife is frying something. We have a very repetitive diet, and this is something I haven't smelled before. What could it be?

It smells like potatoes, I decide, but Violet avoids nightshades.

I run into the kitchen. Liver is simmering in a pan!

Later, as I meditate, I resent the smell of the meat, which lingers. The same scent which seemed so alluring before now disgusts me -- the smell of death!

I became a vegetarian in September, 1971 at Cornell University. On my second day of orientation, I saw a man in a white robe sitting on College Slope, staring at a tree. I went up to him, and we spoke. His name was Peter. He was an Essene -- that is, he followed the teachings of the desert mystics of Israel in the first century B.C.E. (At that time, the Dead Sea scrolls had just been translated.)

I spent two days with Peter; then he left for Hawaii. I never saw him again. In my notebook he wrote:

In order for a seed to grow, It must first burst the shell of its limitations.

Peter ate no cooked food, because fire was the instrument of the Devil. For six months, I followed this diet. I can still remember the first food I ate afterwards—fresh-baked Italian bread in my neighborhood in Manhattan. I could feel my saliva dissolving the bread.

Since that time, I have not eaten meat.

(I wonder where Peter is now? Is he an insurance executive in Spokane, Washington?)

When my daughter was young, I never told her meat comes from animals. I didn't want to pressure her to abstain from this food. But Sylvia never encountered meat, because we didn't cook it. (At that time, Violet only ate meat outside the house.)

Once, when Sylvia was four, we were at an Indian restaurant celebrating my birthday. The food was slow in coming, and Sylvia was hungry. Our friend Janice offered Sylvia some tandoori chicken. Sylvia chewed it, made a face, and spat it back into Janice's hand.

Other than that, the only meat she ever ate was some cat food from a bowl on the floor, as a toddler. And one cockroach.

I cook the grains and beans in the house. One day I prepare millet, the next day brown rice. Also, I cycle through our stock of beans: pintos, black beans, kidneys, split peas, lentils, white beans. I cook the beans for hours, attempting to render them into mush. I believe mush is better for digestion.

My daughter eats a great deal of "salad" -- ripped-up Romaine lettuce, with a liberal topping of our house salad dressing:

1 cup olive oil 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar 1/4 cup tamari.

Sylvia dislikes beans, so she eats grain with nutritional yeast, and liberal sprays of powdered garlic.

Oct. 3
"Did you see the fairy house?" Sylvia asked me today.

No, I replied.

Sylvia brought me outside, to a stone pedestal in front of our house. A little teepee-like structure had been erected, using a cream-colored cloth tied with a ribbon. Inside were two pieces of furniture: a massage table and a bed (both constructed of stones and shoulder pads Violet had cut from a new shirt). The house was held up by dried day lilly stalks, bent into loops. Outside a little path of flat stones led to the entrance. Also, Queen Anne's lace and a pansy lay outside, to lure the fairies.

"Kalena made it," Sylvia explained.

Kalena is a five year old girl Violet teaches nature studies to, once a week.

"Whose idea was it to build a fairy house?" I asked Violet.

"Kalena's," she replied. "She has some book about fairies that says you're not supposed to use living things to build a fairy house. That's why we only used stones, and dried plants."

The fairy house was on the spot where a statue of the Virgin Mary had been, when we bought our house.

Oct. 4
We have three altars in our house. In a corner of the living room is my wife's. On it are: a beeswax candle in the shape of a angel, a turkey egg shell, a fir cone, a stick of incense, two quartz crystals, a bear tooth, a vertebra of a deer, an obsidian egg, a small blue teddy bear, a slab of fluorite, a piece of Bavarian china, a hickory shell that was opened by a squirrel, a goshawk feather, five dried rosebuds, a bundle of five whiskers from our dead cat ("Gummy") and a piece of driftwood. Also there are tools for "smudging": a tray and a bundle of cedar leaves.

Sylvia's altar holds: a statue of Guan Yin (the Chinese Goddess of Heaven), a crystal ball, a conch shell, a dollar bill folded up beneath a gray stone, a Buddha, a tiny porcelain cat, a glass box containing 13 of Sylvia's baby teeth, a silver perfume flask, a plaster replica of her hand that she made when she was 3, a butterfly and moth collection (in a wooden box) and a pottery heart.

My own altar is occasional, and temporary. In the closet of the meditation room is a photograph of my guru, Shrii Shrii Anandamurti. Baba (as his devotees call him -- meaning "father") is sitting crosslegged on a dais, his fingers interlaced. He has his thick black eyeglasses on, and he is smiling. Baba is fairly young in this photo, and looks less like Jack Benny (the brilliant Jewish comedian) than when I met him, in 1987.

Sometimes, when I have the intuitive urge, I stack up a pile of my daughter's paperback novels in the meditation room, cover them with a pillowcase, and prop up this photo on top. This is my provisional altar. I do kirtan in front of the altar, then meditate. (Kirtan is a simultaneous dance and chant, to a mantra. The mantra I use is BABA NAM KEVALAM.)

When my meditation ends, I disassemble the altar.

Incidentally, the meditation room closet is a mild source of disagreement in our household. The closet contains: Baba's photograph, two marble bookends 15/16" (2.4 cm) apart, and three cushions that Violet and I sit on during meditation. Both my wife and daughter feel this closet should hold clothing, blankets and other necessities. I believe the emptiness of the closet reinforces the simplicity of the room -- that the closet emanates emptiness.

So far, I am winning this debate (largely because we have an enormous garage).

Sparrow lives in the Catskill Mountains with his wife, Violet Snow, their daughter Sylvia, and Bananacake, a diffident rabbit. Their town is Phoenicia, New York. Sparrow writes a gossip column for the local newspaper, and teaches classes in Personal Magic. His two books are published by Soft Skull Press (

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life